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Single mother of 4 year old couch surfs - Crazy ?
‘ She is absolutely crazy ‘ was just about everyone’s reaction when we told them of Sofia, a Russian lady we met in Phnom Penh the afternoon before she started couch surfing with her 4 year old son. We thought it was an inspiring story of what is possible (with kids) but we could also understand peoples concerns : Is it safe to couch surf with children ? is it wise to couch surf with, or without, kids given some of the horror stories one hears ? We decided to speak to some seasoned ‘family’ couchsurfers to get the low down on their experiences…. and to see if it would be a fit for us.
What is Couchsurfing (CS)?
Everybody knows what couchsurfing is… In its simplest form it’s getting somewhere free to stay - right ? WRONG
It’s a little deeper than that. Seasoned couch surfers underline that it is really more of an exchange of knowledge, discussion and good times with strangers that very often become good friends ! The ideal cost effective way to learn about (often) foreign cultures. Sebastien from Poland told us that sometimes CS can in fact be as expensive as a cheap hotel ( esp in cheaper countries) as he usually cooks or takes his hosts out for dinner.
Couchsurfing was actually created as a non profit in 2003 as a hospitality exchange and social networking website. However in 2011 this was liquidated with it assets sold on to what is now called Couchsurfing Intl “a mission-driven for-profit corporation”
I must be honest and say that we never really considered couchsurfing until just recently (until this year when we arrived in New Caledonia and saw the prices on that island… ouch) We are of course very much into meeting the people and spending time learning about local culture as you may see from some of our videos ( it is in fact one of the underlying drivers and themes of our video series). However in the back of my mind couchsurfing was only for students trying to save a few bucks… until i met Sofia of course which got me thinking… about would it be a good fit for us…. or families in general.
From our research there is very much a couchsurfing culture that bypasses the free room mentality. There are many events that are and have been organised for many years through the CS forums and FB groups. It’s almost like an open minded and cultural diversity club. As many CSers have mentioned (from a hosting perspective) you can travel the world without ever leaving your own home. As Alex Jannetti (CS Berlin) finely puts ‘ Its about the world being a village ‘
After asking the internet to complete the phrase ‘ Couch surfing is ….’ we got back some really interesting replies :
- A life changing experience
- Free flow karma
- all About Exploring the Places and People
- a phenomenon possibly life altering.
- Giving and not asking for anything in return
- An open exchange of culture and language
Some of the respondents, like Sebastian from Poland, have mentioned though that this culture has changed over the past few years and back 10 years ago community was bit stronger and people more involved. We don’t have experience ourselves in how things may have changed so any comments from seasoned CSers would be appreciated !
Our number one philosophy when we travel/film is to meet the people and see how they live. The very first stop in this years round the world trip was in Kuala Lumpur and we went to the Petronas towers and to be honest i was sickened by the experience. It cost a lot and we learnt little. After that event we vowed to steer as much as possible from the tourist traps such as this. Many months later it is the meetings and encounters we have had with locals or other travellers that will long remain in our memories.
During our research of couch surfing (and 200 random survey respondents) this theme surfaced constantly … great experience start with people first :
- Birgit from Austria said Indian Fish curry cooked by Indian grandma in her kitchen was amazing; or a senior couple surfing our couch who they would instantly adopt as grandparents for their kids (if we could ...) was another
- Amazingly enough Sune from Texas met someone who they actually offered to nanny and live with them we got along so well
- Nancy from Austria says that hosting 10 people in one night was one of the best things!
- One family stayed with a great artist couple in Greece that had the most amazing house they had ever seen. It was hidden away on the side of a hill.
- Sitajan from Czech Republic says that it was amazing as their kids and hosts Kids always played together, communicated together in their own mixed up languages
But what about the bad stories you ask ?
What we detailed above is overwhelmingly positive just like 99% of our human interactions as we travel the world this year. But just like everywhere bad experiences happen, and just recently there was that story of an american girl killed in Pokhara whilst couchsurfing
Most CSers state that have never had a bad experience besides small miscommunications or just trying to ensure the kids behave themselves.
However some respondents did detail some interesting / funny situations
- Sebastien from Poland stayed in the outskirts of Auckland at some old hippe/punk house which looked like a squat ! ( the host there must be a greeeeat salesperson :) )
- Anna from Poland slept in a tiny room with rats
- Stephanie a single mother from Germany ended up in a shared bedroom in spain with a maroccan guy and her Little son. She didnt sleep the whole night to find out that he was really harmless. She also just recently stayed with a Chinese Family and the father shouted at her son very bad when his daughter fell from the Couch. ( the irony involving the couch of course : ) )
- Agnieszka from poland had only the one bad experience in 10 years when in Ireland the host just did not turn up so she had to get a b&b last minute. ( she obviously did not try the nearest pub : ) )
- For Franciska from a family of 9 the worst was a single young man that came late one evening drank a bottle of red Wine and left first thing next morning ( we certainly hope it was not the host's bottle ! )
- Birgit from Austria was not too happy when a surfer posted photos of their kids and house including names on Facebook :-(
VERDICT : So is couch surfing for us ?
Just like any decision whilst travelling one has to decide is such and such a good fit for me. Some people want their own space and anonymity and hence any form of home stay is out of the question. Others absolutely hate this and want to meet people and see how they live.
So the question we pose now is : Is couch surfing for us ?
There are 2 concerns I would have couchsurfing at this time :
- As a digital nomad i needed to be as sure as possible i would have a wifi signal to get a few hours of work done and couch surfing may tend to be less than 100% reliable.
- My wife being the worrier in the family obviously questions the ‘staying with a stranger’ aspect. That Nepal story that i recently came across obviously would fuel these worries. But …. as i always say to just about everyone that questions the safety of our destination choices… it is only ever the bad news that hits the headlines.
However the ultimate gains for us are :
- (aside from having a good time with locals) For our travels series The Kid trotter where we aim to film our experiences and educate people (kids and families) about cultures worldwide…. And couch surfing is damn well perfect for that … meeting real people and seeing how they live is just what we need. ( HURRAY !) We have had many similar experiences but in a airbnb (paid) arrangement so it would be very interesting to see the difference.
- Our daughter would have kids to play with on a more regular basis … as european kids in places like Nepal, Borneo, New Zealand outside of school holidays friends can hard to find … Besides it’s not really that we are looking for when we travel (meeting people from home). The kid trotter has seamlessly made local friends in every country we have been to and went to school in about 7 different countries.
Anyhow being inspired by Sofia to scratch the couchsurfing surface a little more we definitly think it is an option for us going forward to meet like minded people. We will definietly look into hosting people also once we get back to HQ ! Through this research we have been in touch recently with a lot more families that have been doing it for some time and have opened our eyes to the CS world and the many benefits it can bring us.
To conclude we asked for some advice on how to make couch surfing work for us (and maybe you) in the future incase we plan to dip our toes into the couch surfing world
be VERY selective with both hosts and guests ( as i guess you will have learnt from the squat experience above :) )
write a VERY detailed profile of yourselves and read the profiles in great detail.
start as a host so you are in your own comfort zone
trust your gut instinct
as a family choose another family as host and be very clear what you hope to achieve with your stay
be flexible and tolerant but be honest to avoid any big problems
look for people that live in the NOT most attractive touristy locations (as those tend to be the best experiences)
as Rebecca from Virginia said ‘spoil your host’ and go to the extra length if need be (buying a gift etc)
Always say thank you.. its simple but it means a lot
don’t send a standard email
it’s always great to meet and learn from people from different spheres of life but it may also be good to find hosts/guests with similar interests to yours
ALWAYS get a private room and stay with your kid(s) to keep them reassured
If there are no families available think about choosing older hosts (grandparent-feeling)... As you saw above some people would love to have adopted grandparents for their kids :)
Leslie from the US says ‘Make sure your kids have whatever makes them feel at home--special pillow, teddy, pocket doll, whatever…’
Interesting links :